Where a COVID-19 vaccine clinic succeeds for kids with sensory issues
Protecting children from illness is a priority for any parent. But some children have extra challenges when it comes to preventative care.
This past year, members of the Center for Disabilities and Development (CDD) at University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital launched a clinic to overcome sensory disorder issues to deliver COVID-19 vaccinations to nearly 30 children—something they plan to continue this fall with the flu vaccine.
And it all began with a simple phone call.
“A family reached out to us to ask if we could provide their autistic child with the COVID-19 vaccine,” says Sheree Murphy, RN, nurse clinician for the CDD. “They struggled to find a place in the community that they felt could safely provide the vaccine to their child who had unique needs.”
The family knew of UI Health Care’s expertise with providing treatment for patients with sensory challenges, but what they didn’t realize was that the center’s clinic was missing a key component to their request.
“We don’t give shots, ever,” says Murphy. “So, we basically started from scratch.”
So, how exactly did they do it? And how did one patient inspire an entire clinic?
No longer a stranger
This particular patient was already coming to campus for a behavioral clinic, meaning they would be here several days over a two-week period. Murphy says she had several meetings with the family during that time.
“Every time I came, I would bring something to engage with the child,” Murphy says. “The patient’s mom told me they like M&M’s. So, every time we met to talk about their care, I brought M&M’s.”
This simple gesture helped develop a rapport with the child, so that they didn’t see Murphy as a stranger when it came time to get the COVID-19 vaccine, allowing the team to provide the vaccination without incident.
“The patient knew I was accepted by their parents. I think that helped a ton,” says Murphy.
The success with this patient got the CDD team thinking that perhaps they could model their efforts and offer a similar service to other children with sensory disorders.
To do that, they worked in collaboration with various departments—such as pharmacy, psychiatry—and a student from the UI College of Public Health who conducted a health survey.
“The survey looked at what type of accommodations parents were looking for,” Murphy says. “Overwhelmingly, they asked for a quiet, non-clinical space where staff could distract and calm patients.”
Prioritizing patient comfort
“We definitely go with the flow of each patient,” says Lizeth DeLeon, a medical assistant who helped set up the clinic. “Sometimes we’re able to get their vital signs when they first come in, and sometimes we have to wait a little while until they’re comfortable with us.”
The team also uses what they refer to as a the “comfort room,” a space that looks nothing like a clinical area. It’s filled with fluffy pillows, strands of fiberoptic lights, blankets, books, and more, all aimed at individualizing a patient’s care.
“We make sure that we know the nuances of their disorder, how they specifically react to clinical situations,” Murphy says. “We ask ourselves what does the child need at that moment? How can we distract them from the procedure? Do they need music? Do they need a toy? Do they need a warm blanket?”
This creative approach helped them provide a COVID-19 vaccination to 30 children, all with parents who expressed sincere gratitude.
“We had several parents say they had never seen anything like this before,” DeLeon says. “Some even got a little teary as they said thanks. It really showed us that we were doing something right.”
Through a research survey, all the parents of the clinic’s patients shared their overall satisfaction with their care.
“Every survey gave us a five on a five-point scale,” Murphy says. “It’s one of the main reasons that we’re trying to do this again.”
After receiving grant funding, Murphy and her team will launch a similar clinic this fall to provide immunizations for both COVID-19 and the flu. They’re in the process of working with UI Health Care’s pharmacy team to verify the vaccine supply they’ll need.
“We’re able to give these children care in a place where they’re comfortable and they don’t see the experience as negative,” Murphy says. “It makes a huge difference in these kids’ lives and their families.”
The CDD team plans to launch its next clinic of this nature in November and will pursue outreach opportunities to provide flu vaccinations to groups of individuals with disabilities.
This project is supported by the Administration for Community Living (ACL, U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS)) through USAging as part of a financial assistance award to USAging totaling $74,999,835 with 100 percent funding by ACL/HHS. The contents are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent the official view of, nor an endorsement, by USAging, ACL/HHS, or the U.S. Government.